Princess at the keyboard

I am a busy lady. As such, I have trouble finding time to read ACM TechNews every time I receive it. Instead, I have committed to read every headline in every issue I receive. I began this habit a few years ago. Slowly, a pattern began to emerge: nearly every issue of TechNews included at least one headline regarding women in computer science.

Well! Certainly, if the ACM was talking about it so much, it must have been a big deal. Right? I wasn’t convinced. That said, I was most definitely intrigued.

It took some time. Many months. But eventually, I found myself scanning the headlines specifically for these female-centric articles. Why? I wanted to see if anyone could answer the question of most interest to me: Why should there be more women in computer science? (Plenty addressed the less-interesting topic of how to attract more women to the field.)

I don’t know what made me click on a headline TechNews pulled from MSNBC: Tech industry searching for girls gone geek. Something about it caught my eye.

I was disappointed that the article focused primarily on the stereotypical reasons why girls don’t tend to like computer science. I was well familiar with these. But, there was something exciting in the article: mention of a certain book. The Princess at the Keyboard: Why Girls Should Become Computer Scientists

Finally, there was a whole book on the topic I was really interested in! Or, so I thought.

I immediately purchased the book. Even though it was aimed at a much younger demographic than my own, I thought it might hold some secrets that would aid in my understanding of the big deal. Because, really, if ladies just don’t want to become computer scientists, why should we be trying to change that? Who really cares?

Well, as you’ve probably already guessed, the book did not hold any earth-shattering secrets. It was, however, a very nice introduction to what the profession is really all about. It also profiled various women in the field who have been tremendously successful.

Had I been given this book in high school, perhaps I’d have entered computer science in the first place, rather than meandering my way through university until finally landing in compsci at the ripe age of 26. So, kudos to Amanda Stent and Philip Lewis. They’ve written a book I’d definitely recommend to girls who are curious about the field.

But (you knew there’d be a “but”), I noticed something odd about this book. Something that seemed to convey a strange message.

For each of the women profiled in the book, there was a snippet of information about her personal life that didn’t quite sit right with me.

Maria Klawe

In 1980 she married Nick Pippenger…While at IBM Maria had two children, a boy named Janek and a girl named Sasha.

Grace Murray Hopper

Grace married Vincent Foster Hopper in 1930, but he died during World War II.

Shafi Goldwasser

Shafi is married and has two children.

Barbara Simons

There she (re)met her future husband Jim Simons… She became engaged to Jim in the spring of 1959 and, when Jim went to the University of California at Berkeley to continue work on his Ph.D., she transferred to Berkeley. …Barbara and Jim eloped to Reno, Nevada. A year later they had their first child (Barbara was only 19!)… During the next nine years, she had two more children and lived the life of a housewife and mother.

The paragraph about Barbara’s personal life is really quite long and discusses the breakup of her marriage, her learning of programming, and her later moving to California with a new boyfriend when he got a job there.

Jennifer Widom

Jennifer is married to Alex Aiken… They have two children.

Sandy Lerner

[S]he and her husband Len Bosack founded Cisco systems… “Len’s clothes were clean, he bathed, and he knew how to use silverware. That was enough. I was enchanted.”… In 1990, Sandy and Len amicably separated… They remain friends.

Daphne Koller

She is married to Dan Avida, the CEO of a startup company. They have two children.

Martha Pollack

Martha is married and has two children and two cats.

Justine Cassell
No mention is made of Justine’s personal life. I’d like to think the reason for this omission is her own refusal to discuss it.

Amanda Stent
Amanda is one of the book’s authors. Here, she speaks in first person.

I got married to one of the smartest people I know, who is also a ‘computer person’.

I can’t help but feel that despite all of the wonderful information provided in the book, that the underlying message here is, “Don’t worry, girls. Computer scientists can land a man and procreate.”

And, as if I haven’t grumbled enough, I still don’t know why women should be computer scientists.


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